The Romance Novel: Literature of Liberation

romanceRomance novels are at once the most scorned and popular form of literature in the world, accounting for as much as 40% of total book sales in much of the world. The average romance reader (and writer) is female, ambitious, leads a very full and busy life, and has an above-average education and intelligence. The livelihood of some of the world’s most critically-acclaimed (mostly male) authors depends on the revenue base generated from the sale of the remarkably diverse genre called ‘romance’, written by and bought overwhelmingly by women.

I have often written about the need for us to reduce human population to sustainable levels. Short of introduction (by nature or man) of a monstrous new technology to achieve that end, history suggests there is only one way that will happen: If, around the world, women achieve equal power to men. This is currently close to true in only one place: Scandinavia, which by every measure has achieved the highest and most egalitarian quality of life on the planet in modern history. It is nearly as true in Kerala, India, a matriarchal society with a standard of living (measured by health, longevity, low infant mortality, nutrition, equality of wealth, and low homelessness and poverty levels) comparable to that of the West at one sixtieth its level of per-capita consumption. Both societies have reached sustainable levels of population, while Kerala has also achieved sustainable levels of consumption. The one absolutely necessary key to achieving equal power for women is education. One of the best methods for learning is by listening to success stories, and modeling your behaviour on the examples that led to that success. And romance novels are the definitive success stories.

So romances are, in fact, subversive literature: They encourage women to be dissatisfied with inequality, and to set higher expectations for themselves, and they show them ways to achieve those expectations, largely by taming men and, in a way, usurping their power. Romances are arguably the only art form of any kind that portrays women as equal partners with men. Literature professor Mary Bly (a/k/a  romance author Eloisa James) writes in this week’s NYT that “romances actually validate female desire”. and “reflect no more than what most of us hope for in daily life”.

In a compendium on romance, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, contributor Robyn Donald, in the chapter “Mean, Moody and Magnificent: The Hero in Romance Literature”, writes:

The strong, domineering hero of the romance novel has long been the subject of criticism. What critics don’t realize is that it is the hero’s task in the book to present a suitable challenge to the heroine. His strength is a measure of her power. For it is she who must conquer him. Every good romance heroine must have a hero who is worthy of her. And in most cases he is a mean, moody, magnificent creature with an arrogant air of self-assurance — until he meets the heroine. The spirited, somewhat bewildered heroine senses that she is the only person who has such a powerful effect on him, just as he is the only man who can make her reassess the foundations on which she has built her life until then. She is able to read the small signals that tell her he is trustworthy, even though his hardness and antagonism may repel her at first. And the signs of his helpless response to her are intercepted by feminine intuition.

The fact that the woman’s hopes and dreams are fulfilled through achieving subtle but equal partnership with a man is a simple recognition of the reality of power and politics in the world — despite its exotic settings and sometimes florid prose, this form of women’s literature is solidly grounded in reality (far more than most literature read by men). The lesson is that throughout history (and these novels are set throughout history) great women have been forced to achieve power and success through men — so get used to it, and by the way, here are some techniques that will make you successful at it, and have some fun along the way.

I confess I’m not a reader of romances — they are too long getting to the point for my tastes — but I very much enjoy films based on romance novels. There are two series, the first called Shades of Love, the second without an umbrella name but extremely well made (see e.g. Loving Evangeline), based on some of the Harlequin novels that are extraordinary: Engaging plots, credible and charming characters, heroines that live up to any man’s wildest fantasies (where did this myth that men don’t like women taking the initiative come from?), and, of course, sumptuous settings in place and time. None of the usual ‘woman as victim’ crap that is so prevalent in films made about women.

Romance novels are serious business. The online hub for romance readers, All About Romance, is so popular it commands the respect of publishers and authors, who know its reviews (and there are hundreds and hundreds of them) can make or break a book. Romance novels are also women’s business: Most romance authors are members of the Romance Writers of America (RWA), the largest writers’ organization in the world and a strong lobbyist for authors’ rights. Through local chapters, RWA also provides critique groups to teach members to write publishable romances. Romance writers are the only authors who train their own competition and pride themselves on sharing what they know. If you can’t afford the $100 annual RWA fees, Harlequin, among others, also offers online courses on how to make a living writing romances, and the courses are competently written and challenging. They offer free critiques of your work. What other industry do you know where the masters of the craft teach potential competitors how to do it, for free? Great stuff. And if you’re poor, or your taste for romance is insatiable, you can even read entire romances online for free, with additional installments every day. Can we get these guys to talk to the RIAA and show them the way?

So, brava, writers and readers of romances! You are a breath of innovation in a creatively moribund industry, and, despite the sneers, an important force in the liberation of women. Now if only someone could invent a subtle and engaging genre of literature we could use to educate men

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13 Responses to The Romance Novel: Literature of Liberation

  1. Aleah says:

    Dave, what a fascinating and unique look at the “scorned genre.” After reading your reflections on romance as a reconstruction of female strength and eroticism, I began to think about one of my newfound favorite genre: fantasy. Romance novels are another vein of the fantasy. To loosely quote Bram Dijkstra, the author of Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood, “We must change the nature of our fantasies before we can change the nature of our reality.”Women play out imagined roles of power, passion, anger, or as I call them – the red emotions – through romance novels in the same way they indulge in daytime dramas. When women can safely navigate the gamut of these emotions and life roles, the need for the fantasy genre will greatly diminish.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Heh…actually when I wrote the last sentence of my post I was thinking of SF/fantasy as the possible answer and wondered if someone would proffer it. But I think you should put yourself in the position of women in cultures (including parts of our Canadian culture) where romance novels are a pathway out of deeply-engrained submission, even subjugation, and actually teach women to think for and love themselves as women. Not only can these women not “safely” navigate their emotions and life roles, they cannot even safely express their hopes and dreams. While for some women romances may be a place to ‘discharge’, for many they are, and importantly, a place to ‘take charge’ of their own lives. The danger in any fantasy is that (like porn for some men) it becomes a substitute, instead of a rehearsal, for behaviour in the real world.

  3. Would I be out of place in suggesting that comic books are the man’s version of the romance novel? Flawed heroes who exist to improve the lives of others, nefarious villains who capitalize upon the shortcomings of the hero (and the world), complex challenges and moral quandaries, and a reliance upon innovation to solve problems when the standard answers have been negated.I worked in a bookstore years ago and I recall Romance and Westerns being our two most gehttoized sections… But I also recall a lot more business being generated in the Romance aisle than in several other, higher-profile sections…

  4. Mike says:

    “Now if only someone could invent a subtle and engaging genre of literature we could use to educate men…”Dave, I almost hate to say it, but I think such do exist in the form of post-apocalyptic rebuild-the-earth novels, or any settings where strict rationalism overrides concerns of fairness and political correctness. While not an exact example, the old classic ‘The Cold Equations’ comes to mind. I recall reading a rewritten version (by a woman) in which the problem is solved by cutting off and jettisoning everyones’ arms and legs to save the required weight…

  5. Stephen says:

    As a man who had a woman try and upser my (financial) power and as someone in a feminism class: fuck romance.As famous writer Bernard Shaw said about the Romantic idea of a relationship: “no degradation ever devized or permitted is as disastrous as this degradation: that through it women can die into luxuries for men and yet can kill them…”In other words, women need financial equality and autonomy. Otherwise, we as men are going to be targeted for manipulation by women to achieve these things.I’d much prefer to live in a world where women had these, and could choose their mates based on intelligence or niceness, rather than the size of their wallet.

  6. Devon says:

    I have a lot of things I’d like to say about this, but not enough time to say them all, so I’ll stick with this one.I’ve never met a romance novel that didn’t portray women as being incomplete without men. I’m not entirely sure that I’d call that liberation.

  7. As a romance novelist, I’d like to say BRAVO. As to the previous poster’s comment that romance novels portray women as being incomplete without men — well, the reverse is also true: men are portrayed as incomplete without women. What’s wrong with that? We do need each other. The species would be around very long if we didn’t feel that need. I have never understood why there is so much hostility to the romance genre. You see it even in the posters here, who hasten to tell you that either a.) there’s another genre that’s much better at empowerment or that b.) romance is actually about keeping women down. But you are entirely correct: it’s the one genre in which the creators, the editors, and the consumers are all women. No wonder it’s treated with contempt.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Justin: Yes, I think you’re right — and comic books are another form that are ‘ghettoized’ and which adults tend to feel uncomfortable buying. Angela: Precisely. I suspect a lot of the critics of the genre haven’t read much of it recently.

  9. Fascinating idea. I’ve never understood the anti-romance leaning among certain groups of readers, but you make me feel somehow socially redeemed for including so much romance in my mysteries.

  10. Devon says:

    I’ve read a lot of romance novels. I love them, when I’m feeling like a brain break. I just don’t buy the idea that they’re subversive, regardless of who wrote them.

  11. The problem with romance novels, as with any ghetto genre, is quality control. Take, for example, comic books: everybody cites Maus as an example of what they can be. But there’s only one Maus, and there are tens of thousands of comic books like Super Spider Action Crawler #425. So, there may be good romance novels, just like there may be good detective stories or science fiction books or comic books; we can find examples anywhere. But you’ll find that the good examples tend to transcend their genre and become, simply, “fiction.” And the rest? Well, also I don’t agree that romance is subversive. They reinforce a pretty staid status quo. Although they encourage women to be “strong,” the goal is a traditional one: monagamous marraige, children, a nice house, shopping and death.I see romance novels as basically porno for women. And that’s awesome! There’s nothing wrong with that, just as there’s nothing wrong with the majority of men who have stacks of Playboy under their beds. They’re vehicles for fantasy, but I don’t think that in itself encourages women to own their sexuality, any more than Playboy does for men. It could, you’re right. But currently? I’d say no.

  12. Wow, I know this is an ancient blog entry, but I’m going to comment anyway.Romance exists in a lot of genres or so-called “literary” books, however it’s the main FOCUS of the romance genre. Mating and breeding are important themes in everyone’s life – and, like every other facet of our lives – people look to archetypal stories to help them shape and understand their own experiences. That’s what these stories are: contemporary myths and, hence, they’re both relevant and useful.Subversive? Well, I’ll say this much – in every one of these books, the hero eventually accepts the heroine as his equal.Thanks for this article.

  13. Jeanette says:

    Love this article.But did you have to choose the one and only cover that has a big mistake in it? A herione with 3 hands. But maybe she needs them with a hero like that. ;)

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